Book Reviews

Go To Hopkins & Company Homepage

Go to Executive Times Archives


Go to 2004 Book Shelf


Inside Hitler’s Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich by Joachim C. Fest


Rating: (Recommended)


Click on title or picture to buy from




Historian Joachim Fest distills information from hundreds of sources to present a tightly written account of Hitler’s final days in a new book, Inside Hitler’s Bunker. If you haven’t read much about this part of World War II, this is the best account you’re likely to find. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 3 “The War Is Lost!,” pp. 44-55:


           Hitler’s fifty-sixth birthday, on April 20, brought the lead­ers of the regime together for the last time: Goebbels, Himmler, Bormann, Speer, Ley, Ribbentrop, and several Gauleiter (district party leaders), as well as the heads of the Wehrmacht. Goring had come from Karinhall, his hunting lodge. Early that morning he had dispatched to South Ger­many twenty-four trucks loaded with antiques, paintings, and furniture he had collected over the years. He would follow later. As soon as the column of vehicles was out of sight, he walked down his driveway toward the street. On the way there, his face showing no emotion, rather an almost businesslike calm, he inspected the preparations that had been made to blow up Karinhall. Glancing at the tangle of fuses, he said to the bodyguard at his side, “When you’re Crown Prince, you have to do these things sometimes.” Then he left for the birth­day party. Eva Braun had arrived unexpectedly at the bunker a few days before, and had moved into the back rooms of the Führer’s quarters.


The celebration was moved from the bunker to the larger, more festive rooms of the New Reich Chancellery. With paint­ings and furniture gone, and signs of repeated bomb damage, these quarters now seemed drab. Still, the gathering of so many uniformed dignitaries did bring back memories of the pomp and splendor so long dispensed with—even though the inces­santly howling air-raid sirens further depressed the already bleak mood. After a few brief remarks, Hitler went from group to group, gravely, almost defensively, imploring, accepting con­gratulations, and offering words of encouragement. Although at first lie seemed thoroughly exhausted and, as one of those present thought, had to work harder than usual to conceal the tremor in his left arm, the forced confidence he was communi­cating to others appeared to enliven him. To observers he seemed “galvanized.” Meanwhile, outside on Wilhelmstrasse, the Leibstandarte (Hitler’s personal SS division) marched in review past SS Gruppenfuhrer Wilhelm Mohnke.


At some point that morning the codeword “Clausewitz” was issued, ordering a state of emergency. It also became known that, days before, Hitler had prepared for the eventual­ity of advancing enemy forces dividing the area. His plan was that the territory still remaining in German hands would be split into a Northern Command Zone, under Fleet Admiral Karl Dönitz, and a Southern Command Zone, under Field Marshal Albert Kesseiring. For the well-wishers at the birthday party this desperate step was just another opportunity to praise the “military genius” of their Führer, who repeatedly managed to turn defensive situations into far more advantageous offen­sive positions. Goebbels described the two “command zones” as the arms of a “strategic pincer” that would prepare a “second Waterloo” for the unsuspecting Allies.


But in spite of all the deluded talk about tactical “strokes of genius” and an imminent victory—-improbable though that might seem—most of those gathered there were anxious for the affair to end. All knew that the Red Army was about to com­plete its encirclement of the city and that there were only two constantly shrinking escape corridors left, one to the north and one to the south. At one point Goring sent an orderly to obtain a realistic estimate of how much longer they could still get through.


Hitler appeared to be dragging out the reception as though he sensed the disdain and impatience of most of those present and wanted to prevent them from leaving. Later, in the large conference room while discussing the strategic military situa­tion, he ordered that the Soviet units, which had advanced to the outer defensive circle in the north and east, be pushed back with all possible force. Once again he was deploying troops that marched solely through his mad imagination and getting bogged down in tactical details, such as where to deploy a self-propelled antitank gun, or the best placement for a machine gun. The military officers listened to his instructions in silence, their expressions immobile. Only Goring—huge and massive— was having trouble hiding his restlessness as he sat opposite Hitler, seemingly counting the minutes that were elapsing in futile talk.


The previous evening Hitler had brought up the question of whether it wouldn’t be more practical to give up the largely indefensible capital where, by now, there were hardly any Ger­man troops left. At the same time he indicated it was his inten­tion to take charge in the Southern Command Zone and to continue the fight from Obersalzberg, within sight of the leg­endary Untersberg. Perhaps in an allusion to his own afterlife, he once again mentioned the Emperor Barbarossa who, as tra­dition would have it, slept the “sleep of centuries” within the mountain.


But Goebbels had passionately urged him to remain in Berlin, and if death indeed was to be his fate, then to die in the ruins of the city; he owed nothing less to his historical mission, to the oaths he had once sworn, and to his place in history. The Führer, Goebbels insisted, must not end his life in a “summer house.” There is reason to believe that this particular argument influenced Hitler, who always saw his life unfolding on a grand stage. Only in Berlin, Goebbels told him, could a “moral suc­cess on a global scale” be achieved.


Hitler now assured his listeners that he had sorted things out during the night; he would remain in the capital. There was a brief, stunned silence; then almost all in the large confer­ence room implored him to leave Berlin, pointing out that the last escape route might be closed off within a few hours. But Hitler remained adamant. “How can I motivate the troops to wage a decisive battle for Berlin if I escape to a safe place,” he insisted. Finally, to stop the arguing, he said he would leave this decision to “fate”; but he would not prevent anyone else from getting out. To show that his mind was made up, he counter­manded the decisions of Heinricj and Busse, the commanders in charge, and ordered the Fifty-sixth Tank Corps, led by General Weidling, back to Berlin. The Fifty-sixth had been involved in heavy defensive action ever since the battle over the Seelow Heights.


Immediately after Hitler adjourned the conference, a pale and perspiring Goring bade him good-bye, citing “urgent tasks in South Germany.” Hitler stared silently past him, as though he had long known about the shameful scheming of his deputy. He then went out into the garden behind the chancellery, ac­companied by Goebbels, Himmler, Speer, and Bormann.


Some well-wishers had arrived late, and were waiting not far from the entrance near an area sown with bomb craters, tree stumps, and fallen trees: a delegation of battle-weary men from the Frundsberg SS Division and the Kurland army, as well as a number of Hitler Youths from a “Tank Destruction Unit.” Hitler, hunched over as though hiding in his overcoat, walked up and down the rows of soldiers and shook hands with each of them. Then he went over to the Hitler Youths, patted some of them encouragingly, and handed out decorations. Mustering all his strength, he finally managed to utter a few sentences to the effect that the battle for Berlin must be won at all costs. In concluding, he called out in a tired voice, Heil euch!” But no one answered. “All you could hear,” Reich Youth Leader Artur Axmann noted in his report, “was the distant rumbling from the front, now scarcely nineteen miles away.”


Once Hitler had returned to the bunker, the big exodus be­gan. A long line of cabinet ministers and party chiefs pressed toward him; each said a few embarrassed or forced words of farewell, and left. They were followed by endless columns of trucks. One of Hitler’s adjutants reported that Hitler, “pro­foundly disappointed, indeed shattered, merely nodded” and, “without saying a word,” allowed these men “whom he had once made powerful” to leave.


While some took to their heels, others set out for the front accompanied by, as someone put it, the “fervent good wishes” of the people. At about 10 p.m. Hitler told those closest to him that he intended to “shake up” his staff. He sent two of his secretaries, several assistants, the stenographers, as well as his per­sonal physician, Dr. Morell, to southern Germany. Perhaps he would follow later, he said as they were leaving. And to Morell he said, “Drugs can’t help me anymore.” Then, earlier than usual, he retired to his rooms. Some of those who had stayed joined Eva Braun and Martin Bormann for a small post-celebration party in the half-empty Führer apartment in the New Reich Chancellery. They ordered drinks to be brought in and tried to forget the eerie world of the bunker, dancing to music provided by the only phonograph record they could find. It was a song that spoke of “blood-red roses” and future happiness. Eventually, nearby ar­tillery strikes drove them back into the bunker.


No sooner had the word spread that government leaders were free to leave, than applicants besieged the commandant’s house near the Berlin Schloss for the required permits. More than two thousand travel documents were issued in the course of a few hours, even though Goebbels had ordered that no one capable of bearing arms be permitted to leave the city. That morning Otto Meissner, head of the Presidential Chancellery, had already checked in by telephone, reporting that he had gone to Mecklenburg in order to continue to perform his offi­cial duties there. Goebbels replied he was sorry that now he couldn’t do what he had wanted to do for twelve long years— spit in Meissner’s face. The evening before, in a congratulatory speech broadcast on the occasion of Hitler’s birthday, Goebbels had said:


Germany is still a land of loyalty. In the midst of danger this loyalty shall celebrate its greatest triumph. History will never be able to say that the people abandoned their Führer, or that the Führer abandoned his people. That is our victory! As [God] has so often done before when Lucifer stood before the gates leading to power over all nations, He will hurl him down again into the abyss from which he came.” The underworld will not rule this part of the earth, he continued, “rather, order, peace, and prosperity” will prevail. The Führer alone is “the core and center of resistance against the disintegration of the world. And two days later, in his last editorial for the weekly newspaper Das Reich, Goebbels demanded, with rousing vehe­mence, “resistance at any cost,” even “by boys and girls who will hurl hand grenades and antitank mines down upon” the Asiatic attackers and “who will shoot out of windows and cellar openings, disregarding all danger.”


The following morning Hitler was awakened at about nine-thirty, nearly two hours earlier than usual. He was informed that Russian artillery was firing into the center of the city. A lit­tle later the news came that the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichs­tag, and even the Friedrichstrasse station had been hit by shells in quick succession. Shortly thereafter, Hitler, unshaven and visibly distraught, came into the anteroom. His first question was “What’s going on? Where is all this shooting coming from?” When Burgdorf explained that the center of the city had apparently come under fire from an enemy position north­east of Zossen, Hitler turned pale. “Are the Russians that close already?” Then he asked to be connected with General Karl Koller, the Luftwaffe chief of staff. According to Koller’s notes:



Hitler called early in the morning.—”Do you know that Berlin is under artillery fire? The center of the city.”— “No!”—’~Don’t you hear it?”—”No! I’m in the Werder Game Park.” Hitler: “There’s great concern in the city about long-range artillery bombardment. They say it’s coming from a large-caliber railroad battery. The Russians are said to have captured a railway bridge over the Oder. The Luftwaffe must spot this battery immediately and destroy it. “—I: “The en­emy has no railway bridge over the Oder. Maybe they were able to take one of our heavy batteries and swing it around. But it’s probably the Russian field army’s midsize guns; with these the enemy can now hit the center of the city.” Long de­bate about railroad bridge over the Oder, whether or not the artillery of the Russian army can reach the center of Berlin. . . . Hitler insists that we must immediately spot the battery and attack it. He wants to know within ten minutes just where the battery is located. . . .



Koller’s notes continue: “I call the division command post of the antiaircraft unit at the Zoo bunker. In answer to my ques­tion I am told that all this to-do is just about a to-cm to 12-cm caliber gun. The antiaircraft unit observed the Russian battery taking up its position in Marzahn that morning; distance to the center of the city, about seven and a half miles. . . . Hitler greets my report on the facts of the situation with disbelief.”


Koller’s notes on this telephone conversation illustrate Hitler’s delusional mood and his characteristic bias in dealing with generals as well as with reality. Without knowing the de­tails, he speaks of “long-range shelling” and freely invents rail­way batteries and bridges over the Oder. But more than merely revealing that he had insufficient or even distorted information, his words underscore the confusion that existed within the lead­ership at headquarters. KoIler’s April 21 notes continue:



A short while later, Hitler again on the telephone. He wants exact figures regarding the ongoing deployment of aircraft south of Berlin. I reply that such information can no longer be immediately provided because the lines of communication with the troops are not functioning reliably. One has to be content, I tell him, with the regular morning and evening reports that come in routinely. That infuriates him.



Shortly thereafter Hitler telephoned again, and again. He wanted information about jet planes stationed near Prague; then he asked about the “private army” Goring was allegedly maintaining; and he referred to a letter from the industrialist Hermann Rochling. Suddenly he screamed, “All the leaders of the Luftwaffe ought to be strung up at once!” And on and on like that, nonstop: questions. orders, retractions, with short op­erational lectures in between. “Who the hell knows what that was all about?” a confused General Koller wrote. One can al­most hear him sigh with frustration.


To get an overview of the situation, Koller decided to get in touch with General Krebs. After many futile attempts, he fi­nally reached Krebs at 10:30 p.m. and tried to obtain some clarification about a diversionary attack by SS General Steiner, mentioned by Hitler but about which he himself knew noth­ing. Hitler unexpectedly cut in. “Suddenly,” notes Koller, “I hear his agitated voice on the line: ‘Do you still have doubts about my order? I think I expressed myself clearly enough. All Luft­waffe forces in the Northern Zone that can be made available for ground action must immediately be supplied to Steiner. Anyone who holds back any units will forfeit his life within five hours. Your own head is on the line.”


A little later Hitler became indignant when none of the stenographers—whom he himself dismissed only hours before— showed up in the conference room where an officer was present­ing the situation report. As always, he had only one word to explain any disillusioning setback: “Betrayal!” Later that night Walter Hewel, the Foreign Ministry’s permanent representative on the Führer’s staff, whom Hitler held in high esteem, asked for last-minute instructions and reminded him that this was tile very last chance for political action. Hitler got up. “As he slowly and wearily leaves the room, his feet dragging, he says in a soft, completely changed voice: ‘Politics? I don’t get involved in politics anymore. I detest politics. When I’m dead, you’ll have plenty of political decisions to make.’”


Nerves were frazzled, and more and more frequently the dam, forged of intransigence and false confidence in victory, burst. During Goebbels’s last press conference, held by candle­light in his residence behind windows nailed over with card­board, the propaganda minister heaped all blame for the failure of the Great Plan on the officer corps and the “reactionaries” with whom they had been compelled to ally themselves. Re­peatedly and at great length, he went on about how the old caste had always betrayed him, how rearmament had been neg­lected in peacetime, how wrong decisions were made during the campaigns against France and the Soviet Union, and how Germany—from the start of the Allied invasion right up to July 20—had failed to act.

Fest wastes few words, and despite Inside Hitler’s Bunker being a translation from German, the power of his sentences remains strong.

Steve Hopkins, May 25, 2004


ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the June 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Hitler's Bunker.htm


For Reprint Permission, Contact:

Hopkins & Company, LLC • 723 North Kenilworth AvenueOak Park, IL 60302
Phone: 708-466-4650 • Fax: 708-386-8687